The BBC recently covered a sensational discovery: The authentication of a previously unknown portrait by the 17th Century master, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). What makes this story even more memorable is that the painting was first spotted online. In other words, this is a rare example of digital connoisseurship. This is good news for the art world that has not quite yet made sense of the internet. The experience of strolling through a collection to linger over your favorite painting is difficult to put into words much less translate online. Even so, venerable cultural institutions like the museum are finding ways to adapt to the new digital reality. Or they are fortunate that initiatives like Google Art Project are doing some of the evolving for them. The Google Art Project puts some of the world’s great and not-so-renowned collections online for anyone with an internet connection to peruse. The gallery browsing experience is even customizable. Google claims not to have any ulterior profit motive. But surely investing in high resolution images of the world’s cultural treasures is smart business.
The newly verified Van Dyck portrait shows that smaller players are finding their own proper digital niche. And this, it could be argued, is evidence of the overall health of the art world ecosystem. It’s not just the bigger fish that need to thrive. The point should not detract from the details of the artistic find. The painting was previously thought to be a copy. It was in bad shape and a small museum consigned it to storage. Still, it was eligible for the BBC’s program to make all of England’s publicly owned oil paintings accessible online. A keen eyed art historian and dealer then saw the digital photograph of the painting. It turned out to be a portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter, a lady linked to the court of King Charles I (1600-1649).